Jury returns not guilty verdict in Smith manslaughter trial - KCBD NewsChannel 11 Lubbock

Jury returns not guilty verdict in Smith manslaughter trial

LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) -

After five days of testimony and six hours of deliberation, a jury finds former State School employee Doneil Smith, 40, not guilty on all charges.  Smith was accused of manslaughter in the 2009 death of state school resident Michael Nicholson.

Smith was charged with manslaughter in the 2009 death of State School resident Michael Nicholson. Prosecutors say Nicholson suffocated when Smith sat on him to restrain him. The medical examiner's office ruled Nicholson died of a physical altercation with asphyxia. Smith claims he was only trying to dress Nicholson when he laid across him playfully. 

The defense rested their case Friday after putting Doneil Smith on the stand. Doneil testified that he was very close to Nicholson, often threw parties for him, and was devastated by his death. The Defense rested their case at about 2:30 p.m. and then the jury began deliberations. The jury asked for several pieces of information to reach their verdict. They asked for all witness statements and several witness testimonies as well as pictures from the medical examiners office. At approximately 9:15 p.m., the jury returned with a not guilty verdict.

When the verdict was read, the courtroom became very emotional. The entire Smith family as well as Smith's attorneys hugged and cried. The Nicholson family was not present during the reading of the verdict, as they left about two hours into jury deliberations.

Doneil Smith made one comment to the media as he left the courtroom in tears: "I am just thankful to all those who stood by me and supported me," Smith cried.

Smith's attorney, Steve Hamilton said it was not a win for either side, but he knows Smith is still healing from the loss of Mike Nicholson. 

"I know he has prayed a lot about this and he cared a lot about Mike. Overall, no one wins in a situation like this. I can only imagine how awful it could be to lose a child," Hamilton said.

During the five days of testimony the jury heard testimony from the Medical Examiner and Garland Timms, the lead LPD investigator. The LPD investigator read Smith's statements made to police in 2009. Timms said Smith told him he was "sitting on Nicholson, singing and mocking him."

Timms said that he has no reason to believe there was foul play from Nicholson's statements and that the medical examiner agreed. Timms said the medical examiner told him his initial analysis of the body showed no signs of asphyxiation. When the medical examiner took the stand he presented the jury with photos of Nicholson from the autopsy. The medical examiner testified that his autopsy results later revealed Nicholson died of a physical altercation with asphyxia.

The defense, however, says they believe Nicholson actually died of Excited Delirium which is a sudden death sometimes via cardiac arrest that is common for mentally ill men who are restrained in some way. The EMS that responded to the scene testified earlier in the case stating when they arrived that Nicholson was in cardiac arrest.

Testimony on Wednesday made clear that two state school employees were in the room with Smith when Nicholson died. One of the two, Jessica Santos, testified that she lied to investigators in five out of six statements she gave since the incident in 2009.

Initially Santos claimed Nicholson hit his head against the wall, but said that was not the truth. Santos said that, she, Smith and one other person came up with a plan to tell that story but testified that Doneil was actually laying on top of Nicholson, holding him down.

Four other witnesses testified for the state, including an LPD investigator, a state school supervisor, a state school trainer and a state school investigator. Most of the testimony surrounded the details of the statements made by Smith and Santos.

The lead LPD investigator, Garland Timms, read Smith's statements aloud to the jury in the final hour of testimony on Wednesday. The investigator said Smith gave one statement back in 2009 and then decided to give a second statement with different information on that same day.

Three former state school employees testified on Tuesday, describing Smith as a dedicated employee who had a great relationship with Nicholson. One witness even said Smith threw a birthday party for Nicholson before his death.

Prosecutors say Nicholson had a pre-existing neck injury before his death and testimony from supervisors made clear Nicholson had a "no restraint" policy in his records because of that injury.

Smith was cleared of all charges in this case. Calls to the Nicholson family for comment have not yet been returned.

Smith faced up to 20 years in prison.

Copyright 2011 KCBD NewsChannel 11. All rights reserved.

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